A healthy relationship is based on trust, mutual respect and a feeling of safety. Both parties need to feel valued, and that the love they receive is unconditional. Sadly, not everyone finds the perfect relationship. As adults, we learn how to tell when we're egotistical, demanding and unpleasant, and most of us work on bettering ourselves. This is a necessary quality in a good relationship, be it marriage, work, family or friends.
On the other hand, you've probably encountered emotional extortionists – people who use passive-aggressive behavior to get whatever they want, or make sure that you don’t say and do anything they don’t like. They aren’t always aware that their behavior is hurting others, or that they’re doing it to begin with, but undoubtedly, their behavior is unacceptable. Allowing an emotional extortionist to continue unchecked will drain you of your energy and self-worth, and doom you to a one-sided relationship. By paying attention and recognizing these eight warning signs, you’ll know you’re dealing with an emotional extortionist:
1. They turn your words against you
The emotional extortionist can’t take responsibility for his or her behavior, especially if you call them out on it. Once you do that, they’ll find a way to turn the accusations back at you, making you feel bad or guilty for doing so. For example, if you make a legitimate complaint such as “It really bothers me that you didn’t clean the house after you said you would”, instead of apologizing, the extortionist will acknowledge his lack of action by saying: “You wouldn’t have asked me to clean if you knew how much work I have. Why do you never take me into consideration?”
In addition, they might offer a partial apology along the lines of “I’m sorry, but I had to work late last night. I should have told you that I’m feeling tired and stressed. I think I’m getting sick”. This kind of manipulation is worse than a lack of an apology since it makes you feel guilty for asking something in the first place.
Your response should be: If you feel that the apology wasn’t sincere, that the other person is being defensive or is trying to make you feel guilty, don’t give them the satisfaction. If you do, you will empower them and encourage them to do it again. Make it clear that a real apology is unconditional and is followed by a change in behavior so the issue won’t repeat itself.
2. They say things and later deny having said them
The emotional extortionist may agree to your request and even commit to doing what you asked for, only to feign ignorance in the moment of truth. Unless you have a recording of them making the promise, there’s nothing you can do to prove it, and it’s your “bad memory” versus their word. An expert extortionist will twist previous conversations to make you seem like a forgetful person with unreasonable demands. They’ll cause you to start doubting yourself and even feel guilty for something you didn’t actually do.
Your response should be: If this is a reoccurring pattern, start writing down everything the other person promises. Date it and email it to yourself and the other person to remind them and yourselves that this is what was agreed upon. This action may anger the extortionist who will start doubting the trust you have in them, which will make denial more difficult next time.
3. They use guilt to control you
The ultimate extortionist is the passive-aggressive kind - they know where your emotional Achilles tendon is and will cut at it until you surrender or feel like an obedient dog. They will say things like: “You can go to the movies without me, it’s OK. I’ll stay home and finish the laundry on my own”, “If you really want to go spend time with your girlfriends this weekend, go. I just don’t understand how you can leave our kids for such a long time” or even “I know we can’t afford a new car, I never had a new car. I guess I’ll keep driving this old piece of junk”.
The extortionist knows exactly how to play the part of the victim. They’ll spoon-feed you a mixture of guilt and empathy, and say anything that will help them get what they want.
Your response should be: You’re not crazy. It’s the extortionist that is driving you crazy. Don’t let them manipulate you. Don’t succumb to their passive demands of sympathetic appeals. Remind them that they’re an adult, and they can deal with your decisions and actions.
4. They marginalize problems and hardships
The emotional extortionist doesn’t really care about your problems, unless, of course, they can use it as a platform for emphasizing their problems. The extortionist will say things like: “You think you had it bad in traffic today? Imagine doing that every day! It stole years from my life already! Be thankful that you only had to endure it today”, or “I’m sorry to hear you had a fight with your mother, but be thankful you have a mother. My mother passed away, and even if she were alive today, we’d fight more than you and your mother ever did”.
Forget about trying to show the extortionist how they marginalized your problems - they will not acknowledge it and will make you feel like a selfish person instead.
Your response should be: There is very little you can do in this state other than finding someone who’s more mature and caring. Don’t expose your weakness to people who will use them to step all over you.
Instead of being forward and direct, the emotional extortionist will avoid honest communication and will instead rely on a more passive-aggressive approach. They may talk about you with others behind your back, or ask another person to talk to you instead of them to avoid being the “bad guy”. For example, they may ask a friend to tell you that they want to break up with you, or talk to a friend and tell them how unsatisfied they are with your relationship.
The extortionist may use more passive ways to let you know they’re angry or disappointed. They’ll moan, grunt, stop responding or make a supportive statement without following with supportive actions.
Your response should be: For your personal peace of mind, show the extortionist that you’ve noticed their behavior. Their response will most likely be angry or defensive, but at least they’ll know you’re on to them. If this behavior repeats itself, it may be time for counseling or even to formulate an exit strategy from the relationship.
6. They often use anger
Emotional extortionists will try to push others into a corner by using aggressive language, indirect threats or even direct anger, especially if they notice that it makes the other side uncomfortable. They will use this method to control you and get what they want.
In this case, the extortionist’s goal is to make your feel uncomfortable or even fearful so you’ll give up quickly. Your partner may have a short fuse when it comes to their spending, or they slam the doors and scream at you when you do something they don’t like. In time, the extortionist will learn that all they need to do to get you to surrender is to rile things up a little.
Your response should be: As long as there’s no fear of physical violence, make it known that you’re onto them. If this causes them to be angrier and more aggressive, leave the room or even the house. If left unattended, this aggressive behavior can become more destructive. Demand that you both go to counseling so that your partner will realize what they’re doing and maybe change their behavior.
7. They prey on sensitive people with low self-esteem
An emotional extortionist looks for vulnerable people in order to exploit them, and will often look for a relationship that gives them control (knowingly and unknowingly).
Extortionists can easily tell who’s a people-pleaser, or has low self-esteem, which makes them put away their needs to accommodate others. The extortionist can seem, at first, as a caring and sensitive person, but with time, they will slowly start to take advantage of the other person’s sensitivity.
Your response should be: If you know you’re a sensitive and generous person, you may be susceptible to emotional extortionists. Learn to recognize their behavior early on in the relationship, so you don’t get too invested and drained. If you’re already in a relationship with an extortionist, you may find it hard to break it off. Sensitive people often feel a combination of anger, a crisis of loyalty, guilt and a lack of confidence while in such a relationship. You may need help from a psychologist that will help you understand these emotions and will help you free yourself from your destructive predicament.
8. They suck all the energy out of a room
The emotional extortionist can enter a room followed by a dark, brooding cloud. They’ll want all the attention and know perfectly well how to make everyone in the room know they’re upset. Some people may try and talk to the extortionist to make him, or her, feel better. Asking questions like: “Are you OK? Did anything happen?”, will serve as a trigger the extortionist was waiting for to suck all the energy and sympathy from them. A sensitive person that shares a room with an emotional extortionist will feel how their energy is being drained.
Your response should be: If possible – leave the room and don’t let them siphon your energy. If you’re stuck in the room with them, imagine yourself surrounded by an impenetrable armor that shields you from the extortionist’s negativity. Remember – you can’t cheer them up.
Emotional extortionists need to be in control, often because they themselves have self-esteem issues. An extortionist compensates for that by displaying a façade of confidence and power. Their motives are almost always selfish, and they ignore the effect their behavior has on other people. They need to feel superior and will use different forms of manipulation to get what they want.
Your emotions are the best tools to fight against emotional extortion. Look inside and ask yourself if you feel like you need to defend yourself constantly, often feel guilty or even upset. Do you find yourself making excuses, or that you end up putting aside your emotions and beliefs for the sake of the other person? You may not be feeling it at the moment, but remember these warning signs and see if they apply to your relationships in the future.
If you suspect that you’re in a relationship with an emotional extortionist, this is the time to do something about it. Consult with a professional who will help corroborate or alleviate your concerns, as well as help you find a way to possibly salvage the relationship. Waiting too long can mean losing yourself in the relationship.
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